The image of Kim Jong Un, both in Western and South Korean media is humorous, frequently used as a meme to describe one’s emotion on SNS, such as happiness, sadness, anger or hunger.
Dong-a Ilbo photojournalist Byun Young-wook’s book, Kim Jong Un.jpg, published in November, provides clues about why this is. For one thing, it notes that Kim Jong Un has a variety of facial expressions, displaying a more diverse set of emotions than his father or grandfather.
Byun, with 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, has concentrated on the North Korean leaders’ pictures and images released via the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper. He has found glimpses analyzing North Korean politics and propaganda in support of its leadership through the leaders’ photos.
It is remarkable that Kim Jong Un is very freewheeling and easily reveals his mindset, as well as enjoying direct contact with the public. He has taken many pictures surrounded by children, students and soldiers, quite unlike his father; Kim Jong Il very rarely was shown in physical contact with people, except handshakes with other leaders at summits.
The young leader also has established his own characteristic speaking style. For three consecutive years, Kim has spoken in front of the camera for the New Year’s address. There is, by contrast, only one known voice clip of Kim Jong Il, saying simply, “Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army soldiers.”
‘(Kim Jong Un) utilizes the advantage of having a similar body frame as his grandfather’
Kim Jong Un’s sociable actions connect him with his grandfather Kim Il Sung. “He utilizes the advantage of having a similar body frame as his grandfather,” the book reads. The color of his clothes, his walking posture folding his hands behind his back, and hands in the pocket are commonalities the young leader has adopted from his grandfather.
Kim’s outgoing characteristics are also fostered through different camera angles. “During the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il eras, depiction from behind was a kind of taboo. This depiction, however, is becoming more frequent for Kim Jong Un. The depiction is chosen to emphasize the scale of the event.” This phenomenon has been revealed because of Kim’s many public appearances, And this kind of angle gives the impression that the people are sharing the moment with the leader by looking at the same scene, the author writes.
A NORMAL STATE?
At the same time, Kim is trying to follow international norms, such as wearing a suit, revealing his wife to the public, and sometimes not wearing a badge depicting his father and grandfather. “Kim Jong Il never revealed his wives to media, (but) Kim Il Sung used to accompany his second wife Kim Song Ae few times … (Kim Jong Un’s wife) Ri Sol Ju’s fashion and face look more dynamic,” the book reads. The author considers Lee’s appearance an effective tool to popularize the image of a “normal state.”
The author, however, pointed out that the images of North Korean leaders are “directed,” like a drama.
“When Kim Jong Un entered Jangjaedo island, located in front of the Yeonpyongdo island, with the wooden boat, the chief of the Korean Central News Agency was on the same boat … On the day, all the residents of the island cooperated to compose the screen. As soon as the video recording starts, everyone jumps into the sea to see Kim Jong Un,” the book reads.
The use of the lighting facilities became more frequent as Kim Jong Il’s health deteriorated
This kind of direction worked for his father as well. January 18, 2009, Kim Jong Il’s picture on Rodong Sinmun shows the light from the plural outdoor lighting apparatus, which is normally used for filming sites. The use of the lighting facilities became more frequent as Kim Jong Il’s health deteriorated.
“On January 16, Kim Jong Il’s complexion was bright as the female worker’s face, who wore makeup … The lighting apparatus’ impact to make the figure more flashy. Of course, Kim Jong Il might have worn makeup following rumors of his health disorder,” the book reads.
The publicity strategy is concocted by a media professional, officer Kim Ki Nam. According to the NK Leadership Tracker, he became deputy chief editor of the Rodong Sinmun in 1966, and become the senior chief editor in 1974. He started serving as a director of the Workers Party of Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department in 1985. The book said the background of then-leader Kim Il Sung’s pictures notably changed after he became the senior editor.
It seems like Kim Ki Nam is in a stable position, considering his most recent appearance on January 2 visiting the Sci-Tech Center with the leader. His current position is secretary of the central committee of the party.
UNIVERSALITY AND SPECIFICITY
An image-making process is also used by Western leaders, including the U.S., as well as South Korean politicians. President Barack Obama takes pictures with children, holding babies. Western politicians, regardless of their gender, also wear makeup. It is widely known that South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s hairstyle originates from her mother, Yuk Yong-soo, who gained public affection through her elegant and benevolent image. By following her mother, she can ease her association with her father’s iron-fisted image. Former President Roh Moo-hyun could build a friendly image through the video recording him playing classical guitar and singing in a natural voice, something obviously planned to win the election.
From this point of view, North Korea’s image politics are universal, something that happens in other democratic nations. Yet, in the country there is an exclusive right to the image; nobody in North Korea can make fun of the ridiculous image of the young leader. There are no private or public media which can take a picture of the leader in an undirected moment.
Understanding North Korea means understanding both the universality and specificity. In terms of the specificity, Kim Jong Un enjoys an advantage compared to other political leaders. In modern times, everyone faces competition under the glare of the media. Politicians are trained to use the media and the leaders of nations are not exceptions. But Kim, who monopolizes the rights to use the media, seems like an exceptional case.
Main image: KCNA
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